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Why Do Children Set Fires?

Juvenile firesetting is a problematic behavioral pattern. What causes it?

Key points

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, anxiety disorders, and conduct disorder may co-occur with juvenile firesetting.
  • Research suggests that over 50 percent of arson charges have been ascribed to youth offenders.
  • Children who have a pattern of firesetting are more likely to be victims of abuse and use fires to express anger or alleviate stress.
  • Though an interest in matches and fire is not always viewed as a behavioral issue, parents should understand the dangers of juvenile firesetting.
Marco Allasio/Pexels
Firesetting among children and adolescents is a problematic behavioural pattern which can result in serious injury. What causes it?
Source: Marco Allasio/Pexels

Peter was only 16 years old when he ignited a fire that would ravage over 40 acres of a protected forest. Like many children who violently offend, this crime was preceded by a compound of adverse childhood disturbances and a panoply of behavioural abnormalities and impulse-control issues.

Sadly, at age 4, he was removed from his biological mother’s care because of her crack cocaine use, which had transpired since her pregnancy with Peter. He was the second of six children, all of whom had come into contact with social services, and was placed in the custody of his grandmother, who often neglected him. For a significant portion of his youth, Peter was sexually abused by his older cousin. Upon leveraging these problems with his grandmother, she dismissed and punished him due to this disclosure.

During this time, Peter recalled abusing animals, setting his grandmother’s bed on fire while she was sleeping, and burning different objects in the backyard of his home. After one of his older sisters reported the cousin's crime, and his cousin’s subsequent incarceration, he continued to violate school rules and was placed in numerous treatment facilities for aggressive and suicidal conduct. However, Peter’s violent behaviour would reduce significantly upon receiving therapy to address his mental health difficulties.

Though a substantial outlier from most firesetting involving children and adolescents, Peter’s case perfectly illustrates the dangers associated with destructive fire misuse. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1,200 children and adolescents were arrested on charges related to firesetting in 2020. Previous research from the Department of Justice has also indicated that over 50 percent of arson charges have been ascribed to youth offenders. As a whole, deliberate firesetting by all demographics results in around $1.4 billion in property damage yearly and often results in injury or death. Concerning the criminological profile of non-juvenile offenders, a 2017 study of 389 adult firesetters spearheaded by Danish researchers found that most perpetrators are motivated by instrumental factors—such as a desire for financial gain.

Other adult firesetters may be motivated by rage or anger or engage in typical behaviours to cry for help. The researchers also determined that certain antisocial behaviours, self-regulation and communication problems, and certain mental disorders may underpin some of these offences. Some who engage in these abnormal practices may also suffer from pyromania, an impulse-control disorder marked by a pattern of firesetting that functions as a venue for gratification or releasing anxiety.

When considering children who have a propensity for fire, psychologist Robert Stadolnik, Ed.D., who has performed risk assessments on youth for nearly three decades, notes that “children who set fires are predominantly male, but we do see an increase in female firesetting in adolescent populations.”

Though research remains sparse on the exact motivations and gender differences among this demographic, Stadolnik affirms that youth often set fires for excitement, experimentation, or coping mechanisms for past experiences in a chaotic family system. “Some kids will set fires as a means to self-soothe,” he remarks. “Many of the children we see have a history of trauma or neglect.”

In fact, a 2008 study further concluded that children who were victims of abuse and neglect were more often involved with fire when contrasted with non-maltreated counterparts. Moreover, the researchers who spearheaded this research concluded that, in addition to being more versatile regarding targets for firesetting, the maltreated children were often motivated by anger, and the onset of these behaviours was likely linked to an immediate family stressor.

Concerning the diagnosis of pyromania among juvenile firesetters, Stadolnik says that “over the course of my career, I have never met a child who met the diagnostic criteria for pyromania. The idea that these kids have an innate or uncontrollable urge to set fires is a myth.”

Aside from abandoned structures or isolated wooded areas, schools are also common venues for firesetting among children and adolescents. In a 2015 Swedish study published in the Journal of Youth Studies, which analyzed numerous cases of school firesetting, researchers found that many offenders engaged in these behaviours to obstruct school activities, eliminate evidence of school burglary, or for motives relating to vandalism.

Curiously, the study also determined that those who were diagnosed with severe psychiatric disorders and targeted schools for arson often had no educational relationship to the institution at the time of their offence. Concerning the mental health and social relationships among juvenile firesetters, research has indicated that this group often has difficulties communicating with peers, family members, and administrators at school. These social deficits may have a negative impact on their mental health, thus amplifying firesetting behaviours, which may also co-occur with antisocial or conduct problems. “In adolescents whom we see play or use accelerants, it can be a part of a pattern, such as vandalism,” Stadolnik adds.

Though a child playing with matches or fire should not be interpreted as a symptom of an underlying psychiatric disorder, the manifestation of a mental health condition may be a primary underpinning in some cases of firesetting by youth. “ADHD is not an uncommon diagnosis that we see,” says Stadolnik. “Certainly, kids who set fires may have a history of a conduct disorder or—lesser so—oppositional defiant disorder.” Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) is marked by hostile, defiant, or disobedient behaviour directed toward authority figures, such as teachers and parents.

On the other hand, conduct disorder, in particular, is marked by a pattern of emotional and behavioural problems which involve disregarding others. Curiously, firesetting with intent to cause property damage is listed as an example of problematic behaviour indicative of conduct disorder in the DSM-5. Since many children have a history of victimization, post-traumatic stress disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, which are both marked by excessive stress and issues with self-regulation, are extremely common among this demographic, as well.

Overall, clinicians and the public at large should take note of firesetting as a dangerous pattern of behaviour and a potential feature of a mental disorder.

References

Apsche, J. A., Siv, A. M., & Bass, C. K. (2005). A case analysis of MDT with an adolescent with conduct personality disorder and fire setting behaviors. International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy, 1(4), 312.

Garry, E. M. (1997). Juvenile firesetting and arson. US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).

Root, C., Mackay, S., Henderson, J., Del Bove, G., & Warling, D. (2008). The link between maltreatment and juvenile firesetting: Correlates and underlying mechanisms. Child Abuse & Neglect, 32(2), 161-176.

Ekbrand, H., & Uhnoo, S. (2015). Juvenile firesetting in schools. Journal of Youth Studies, 18(10), 1291-1308.

Slavkin, M. L. (2002). Child & Adolescent Psychiatry: What Every Clinician Needs to Know About Juvenile Firesetters. Psychiatric services, 53(10), 1237-1238.

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). (n.d). Estimated number of juvenile arrests, 2020. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). Retrieved November 25, 2022, from https://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/crime/qa05101.asp

Dalhuisen, L., Koenraadt, F., & Liem, M. (2017). Subtypes of firesetters. Criminal behaviour and mental health, 27(1), 59-75.

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